Home for Hanukkah with the Gilberts
Home for Hanukkah with the Gilberts

Twinkling holiday lights overshadow my Jewish center

The street is empty and eerily quiet. The trees appear almost black as they reach their pointy stick fingers into the quickly darkening sky, and I spy a few brave leaves still clinging to the branches here and there. They quiver in the soft but icy breeze that whispers down the road at dusk in the wintertime.

Even as I pull up in front of my house, the sky is already completely dark. I sit in my car for a few minutes and watch as small pinpricks of light pierce the night one by one, until the once dark and empty street is filled with the twinkling welcome of dozens of fairy lights, beautifully strung to decorate the neighbors’ houses and gardens with holiday glitter and winter cheer.

Only one house remains dark. Mine.

It’s December. Winter is here, and we have celebrated a great season of fall sports, with a festive football banquet, and a very loud and fun pizza party for the soccer players. We have applauded a semester of orchestral music at a beautiful winter concert, and enjoyed participating in meaningful holiday toy drives and creative gift exchanges.

Even as the days have cooled enough to see my breath in the crisp air and the nights have become long and very dark, it has been a full and busy time of joy and goodwill.

And I feel a little lost. A little off-center. The houses on my street twinkle brightly as the winter sun begins to set, but nothing alights the path to my front door. I am surrounded by wonder and joy, immersed in the spirit of giving and receiving. Yet, for me, something is definitely missing.

My Jewish center.

Football during the fall means very little time for candles and challah. We (willingly) give up Shabbat dinner for Friday night lights on the football field, and Saturday soccer games often replace services at synagogue. I love all the celebrations we enjoy every winter, but I am missing the preschool Hanukkah parties that were such an essential part of my life when my kids were younger. Our Jewish family life was structured around those parties that celebrated the chagim (Jewish holidays), infused with the Hebrew songs they learned at preschool, and enriched by the artistically braided challah they brought home every Friday.

We happily send our kids to a wonderful public school, and they certainly thrive as they learn about religions and people and customs beyond their own. They bring home beautiful and appropriate winter poetry and art they’ve created themselves, and appreciate their friends’ holiday traditions and love to share their own.

But I look up at my house, so dark and quiet on this street of glittering lights, and I wonder where the center of our Jewish life is now.

I carefully walk up the stairs to the front door. It is so dark I am barely able to make out where one step ends and the next begins.

I push open the front door. The house smells like fried latkes, and I can hear the kids laughing and arguing in the kitchen. They are standing at the counter, setting up the menorahs to light candles for Hanukkah, and trying to remember who made which one. All of our menorahs are variations of each other, handmade by the kids at preschool: a piece of wood, decorated with bolts for candleholders. The wood is thick with years of melted wax, and none of the candleholders is in a straight line.

The kitchen is warm and bright, and they each take turns lighting the candles. The youngest reminds everyone to light from left to right, and his siblings remind him that they know!

Maybe we don’t get to synagogue services as often as I’d like lately, and Hanukkah parties and communal candlelightings were definitely missing from the giant calendar that hangs in the kitchen this year.

But I catch the reflection of the brightly lit candles twinkling in the window, and I know where the center of our Jewish life is. It is here. It is our home.

Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.